Cooks love kitchens. When we're house or apartment or condo-hunting it's the first room we inspect. When we visit a friend's place for the first time we hope the tour will begin there. I, like - I suspect - many of you, have dreamed of working in a kitchen of my own design. It would have my mother's kitchen's view (gold and green-mottled New Mexico desert backed by flat-topped buttes) and the functional simplicity of a Piemonte farmhouse kitchen in which we've spent a few Christmases (brief L-shaped counter; good, sturdy range; open shelves; huge, well-worn table).
I don't yearn for a fire high and hot enough to make steel, a drop-dead gorgeous granite counter, or a slick, stainless steel-fronted, built-in refrigerator bigger than a boat. My ideal kitchen has appliances that get the job done, excellent lighting, prep space to allow for at least two cooks at the same time, floor area for three dog beds, and plenty of room for humans to hang out. It has lots of wall space for Dave's photos and a selection of the colorful textiles we've picked up over the years. Its personality reflects ours. It doesn't scream 'I spent thousands and thousands on this space!" It whispers 'This is where Robyn and Dave happily spend most of their time.'
Then again, if I ever in a million years thought that I could master the art of cooking over a wood fire, my dream kitchen might look this this one, in the Medina family home in Arayat, Pampanga province, Philippines. Dave and I were introduced to this beautiful space in February, when Medina son Marc invited us out to 'the provinces' for a taste of 'Pampanga, pang aldo-aldo' (everyday Pampanga dishes). We gratefully revisited it a few weeks ago, when we spent the tail-end of Holy Week in Arayat.
This kitchen, built well more than a century ago, is the oldest room in the Medina house. It is anchored by a massive wooden bench topped with six wood-fired burners made of local stone. A shelf underneath holds chopped wood and pots and pans. The stove's wood smoke escapes through a hole in the room's high pitched bamboo and palm roof.
The old Medina kitchen is as functional as a kitchen can be. The floor's wood planks, set apart to allow for air circulation (like the rest of the house, the kitchen is built one story off the ground), also make for easy sweeping. Generous cross breezes find their way through ythe wide, perpetually open windows punched in every wall. A row of short wooden 'pickets' in one of the windows near the stove (see opening photo) serve as 'drainer' and storage for drinking glasses. A square wooden table within easy reach of the stove holds prepared dishes or merienda (late-afternoon 'snack') fixings and serves as dining table when Marc's guests are few (though it would never have hosted family meals in his grandmother's day). Above the table hangs a square, heavy bamboo tray. Lowered and raised with a rope, it provides critter-safe keeping for leftovers.
Other than its few nods to modern times (a refrigerator and a standing fan in the corner, a flourescent strip light suspended over the wood stove, and a two-burner gas cooktop, called into use when something needs reheating or when the number of dishes underway exceeds the wood stove's capacity) the Medina kitchen is as it has been for more than a century. It shows its years, beautifully (I should hope to age so well), with a smoke-blackened ceiling telling of tens of thousands of meals cooked at that stove and termite-eaten wooden beams worn smooth to the touch by years of exposure to caressing hands and airborne cooking fat.
The low walls of the stove's stone wells are worn almost flat in some spots, and the pans that sit atop and underneath the cooker are battered and seasoned to an unmatched nonstick finish.
But kitchens are never just brick and mortar, pots and pans, tableware and furniture. The most alluring cooking spaces suggest history and lived lives; they exude personality (this can be said even of newly-built kitchens). When you walk into a kitchen like this one in Arayat, you know that there's not one like it anywhere else.
So, the bigger picture: the Medina family is one of Arayat's most prominent. Marc's grandmother managed vast rice estates planted by hundreds of tenant farmers. The house, surprisingly modest given the family's circumstances (a receiving hall and enclosed porch, three bedrooms, a dining room, and that gorgeous kitchen), is a trove of aged photographs, intricate religious statuary, and other family mementos. Its walls breathe family history and evoke a sense of life as it was lived in the Philippine provinces way back when. And the town's history lives in the form of the silver and wooden carroza (carriages), kept and maintained by the Medinas, that are used to transport images (patron saints, Christ, and the Virgin) during Arayat's candlelit Holy Week and town Fiesta processions (other carroza are kept by Marc's cousins and other Arayat families).
The food served at the Medina Arayat table, food that is prepared as it was in his grandmother's day, is - unusually, for a family formerly (before agrarian reform) firmly of the Pampangan landholding class - everyday fare, 'of the earth', as Marc describes it. This is partly a reflection of Marc's grandfather's humble upbringing - the son of a farmer, he became, with the aid of scholarships, a well-to-do doctor who squired his family around Europe on holidays. The man, Marc tells us, was passionate about food, a 'culinary purist' who insisted that everything be done just so, every dish cooked in clay pots and over a wood fire (at least in this house) no matter the time or effort required.
The Medina Arayat culinary tradition is embodied in Lucia, their cook (above, left), a niece of Marc's grandmother's cook. Marc says that his family's household's dishes are truly 'Slow Food' and, in the same sense, Lucia is what I would call a 'Slow Cook'.
Sitting at the kitchen table in February, I watched her prepare - with the help of a daughter and a daughter-in-law - some fifteen dishes over four hours (she had, of course, started long before we arrived at the house at 9am). She moved leisurely - circling, circling, circling the stove - lifitng lids to monitor contents, stirring here, adding a little something there, moving pans from high heat to low heat to no heat at all. Never rushing, rarely speaking, Lucia seemed in a trance, completely at one with her work, which seemed not work at all but merely an extension of her being, an action as unthinking as breathing. Knowing which dishes needed what kind of attention when, she cooked entirely by instinct, with the heart instead of the head - a state of kitchen ease that I've experienced perhaps thrice in all my years at the stove (those moments are so rare that I remember them vividly).
There was never a doubt that the meal would be extraordinary.
Among the standouts were huge freshwater ulang (prawns) cooked in gata (coconut cream) , an ingredient rarely used, in Pampanga, outside of the dessert repertoire. Lucia started the prawns on the fire, then moved them to a low-ember burner, where they cooked ever-so-slowly in the coconut cream until the latter had been absorbed by the prawns and all but evaporated, leaving a thin coating of fat clinging to the shellfish. The best part of this dish was the crustaceans' heads, stuffed with rich, reddish fat.
Ukoy are deep-fried rice flour fritters. Made with grated green papaya and sweet potato, Lucia's version features one huge prawn per piece, as opposed to the multiple, much smaller prawns used by other cooks. Masterfully fried, they were crispy outside, tender within, absent of excess grease, and delicious eaten with white cane vinegar seasoned with chopped fresh chilies, shallots, and black pepper.
The simplest dish of the meal, and one of our favorites, was suam na mais, a corn soup made with starchy white corn (Western sweet corn would never work in this dish), grated, and featuring one or two fresh squash blossoms per bowl. We ate it with the famous kapampangan taba nang talangka (crab fat), and would have asked for another bowl had ten or so other dishes not required our attention.
Burong asan is a kapampangan preparation of fish (or shrimp) mixed with rice and left to ferment for several days. Its ammonia-like odor is unforgettable, but it tastes much better than it sounds - sour, fishy, complex, almost cheesy. Lucia fries her buro with a bit of tomato. It'ss eaten with cooked and fresh vegetables and is exquisite folded into a crunchy, peppery mustasa (mustard) leaf.
Certainly the visual star of the meal was bringhe, a rich concoction of glutinous rice and turmeric-flavored chicken steamed in banana leaves. For this dish potatoes and carrots, garlic, onions, and fish sauce are sauteed over a medium fire, and then joined by fresh, grated turmeric and chicken. Coconut milk and chicken broth are added, then glutinous rice, which is stirred over low fire until the grains are translucent. More coconut milk (the second pressing), and then the whole is turned into a pan (a huge wok, here) lined with banana leaves, covered with more leaves, and then steamed.
The result is a mound of lovely gold- hued rice, soft in some spots and crispy - where it's lain against the banana leaf-lined sides of the pan - in others, and tender chicken, all imbued with the richness of coconut milk. As much as we loved this dish, we felt almost sad to encounter it accompanied by so many others. Bringhe really invites - nay, deserves - one's full attention (and empty stomach), neither of which we could offer it on this day.
Other masterworks from Lucia's kitchen included camaru, or tiny mole crickets, cooked adobo style - that is, boiled in vinegar with chile, garlic, and a bit of salt until the vinegar evaporates, then left to saute in their own fat until crispy. A seasonal delicacy, the crickets are collected from rice paddies after the harvest. Bugs were the last thing we thought of when spooning up this Kapampangan specialty, which was pleasingly crunchy and sinfully rich.
Adobo is a classic Philippine dish, but, as Marc told us, these days few cooks take the time to do it right. Which is - colored brown not from a soak in soy sauce, but from long, slow frying in lots of garlic (after a saute in vinegar) until the meat's (chicken or pork) natural 'sauce' (ie. fat) separates and settles beneath the cooking oil. Lucia served us a platter of amazingly tender chicken adobo speckled with copious crispy bits, the pieces of meat that stick to the pan over the course of a good, long saute. Baggoong (long-fermented fish or shrimp sauce) mixed with chopped tomato was the perfect accompaniment.
In other provinces sisig is a fatty concoction of all the head and innards of the pig, satisfying drinking food. In the Medina household it's also a seductive, vinegary saute of young banana blossom flavored with bits of pork and pork broth. When cooked thus the banana blossoms take on the flavor and texture of artichokes. This dish reappeared on the table at Holy Weekend; we were glad for the encore.
Pampangans are known for their love of sweets, but there were no desserts that February day in Arayat (our bellies were truly grateful). We'd have to wait for Holy Week to sample famous kapampangan treats like tocino del cielo (creme caramel), Medina ensaimada ni Ate Guida (sweet bread made with 36 egg yolks and a small ball of Dutch edam cheese, among other ingredients), and halo-halo (shaved ice treat) made with a sweet 'paste' of boiled carabao milk.
And to sample more creations of these Arayat Kitchen wizards.
Note: Read more about the Medina family's Arayat kitchen in Marc Medina's essay in the IACP award-winning cookbook 'Memories of Philippine Kitchens' by Amy Besa and Remy Dorotan. Also, find there recipes for bringhe and other kapampangan dishes, as well as exquisite photos of the Medina kitchen by photographer Neal Oshima.
Thanks, of course, to Marc for opening his family's home and kitchen to two newcomers (and quick converts) to Philippine cuisine.